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New research finds young refugees are wrongly thought to lack ambition

Refugee students tend to set their sights high, but new research on young refugees’ education in Brighton and Hove has found that their low level of English is often interpreted as a lack of ambition.

Research paper cover

Students from refugee backgrounds reported that language barriers heavily affected their grades. In general, refugee students struggle during exams as they have difficulties with understanding and responding to questions in English. In particular, maths and science curricula require the production of complex language and understanding terminology. Refugee students also encounter obstacles because of the different cultural references compared to their own countries. History, for example, is taught from a European perspective.

One student said, “I really enjoyed reading books for the English language GCSE [but] I find them really hard, and it really made my grades go down instead of up, the English language, because I spend a lot of time doing English language instead of my actual A-Levels.”  Another young person was challenged by the different cultural references in the curricula. “In our countries they look from our point of view, our beliefs, it’s like they’re supporting Arabic culture or Islamic beliefs or Quran. Where in England here, they support the European belief or the English belief, which is normal of course.”

The research was carried out by the University of Sussex, in partnership with Sanctuary on Sea and The Hummingbird Project. Researchers interviewed 18 young people from Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine as well as refugee parents and foster carers in the Brighton and Hove area.




Our research shows that the needs of refugee students are poorly understood and are not being met. Much more could be done to support this group to progress and thrive in the education system. We hope schools, colleges and universities will consider the recommendations we have made.”

Dr Linda Morrice, Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sussex

The majority of refugee students said that, at first, they found it very difficult to socialise with English students because of the language and cultural barriers. Some of the students suffered from isolation and anxiety because they could not make friends. Students also talked about being bullied or racially abused by other students at school. In these cases, racism was directly connected with being foreign.

In general, refugee students tend not to say that they are refugees because they fear being bullied. However, if incidents were reported, schools and teachers intervened promptly. But only in a handful of cases refugee students reported that fellow students were friendly and helpful. Making friends and having the support of peers is a key factor in academic progression and success.

A number of participants said that activities and events at school, such as collecting items to send to refugees, or positive representations of refugees helped them to develop a sense of well-being at school. One young girl spoke of her pride at being asked to speak Arabic at a school assembly as part of a language awareness event. 

Mental health issues, particularly related to asylum claims or to previous trauma, have a significant and ongoing impact on the lives and education of refugee students in the UK. Asylum application processes and rejections are the most common challenges that affect refugee students who arrive in the UK via the asylum route. The long waits, and news of friends and family members receiving rejections, gravely affect the mental health of the students and their engagement with education.

Despite these obstacles, students who took part in this research project were very keen to progress in school. Refugee students have high aspirations for their future and they all want to attend university. All those interviewed aspire to a variety of professions: lawyer, doctor, engineer, businessman/woman, psychologist, interior designer, charity worker and pharmacist.

This research suggests that support for refugee background students should be better tailored to students’ individual needs. They have very different backgrounds: some of them have never been in formal education, others have attended private schools, and the support provided to them should match be adapted accordingly. Finally, schools should do more to include refugee parents in the UK education system.

You can read the full report here: